The Gene Dilemma: Surgery thwarts genetic legacy of danger: Liz Hunt meets a woman who felt forced to have her healthy breasts and ovaries removed

THREE years ago Wendy Watson returned to the Derbyshire peak district where she grew up. She and her husband, Chris, had bought a farm near Buxton and wanted to build a new life with their nine-year-old daughter Rebecca, breeding horses and cattle.

Mrs Watson was also keen to re-establish ties with her mother's family, many of whom she had not seen for almost 20 years. It proved an alarming experience. She found she belonged to a 'cancer family', with an inherited genetic pre-disposition to breast and ovarian forms of the disease.

Mrs Watson's mother died of breast cancer at the age of 43, and she knew her grandmother had developed it at 40 and died, aged 67, of suspected ovarian cancer. She was aware that her own risk was higher than other women's, but she had until then been unaware of the full extent of the disease in her mother's family. 'Suddenly I was surrounded by all these women with cancer. They would say: 'Oh so and so has just had her operation' or 'such and such has died'. They were quite matter of fact and nobody seemed to think it was unusual, or be aware of a family link,' she said.

Some painstaking detective work followed. Mrs Watson gathered medical records and death certificates, and wrote to relatives in Canada. She constructed a family tree that few women would wish to be part of. In addition to her mother and grandmother, she discovered that her great-grandmother had died of breast cancer; a great-aunt had died of ovarian cancer; two of her mother's cousins had been diagnosed in their forties; three second cousins aged between 38 and 50 had died of breast cancer; another had developed it at 36.

Mrs Watson took her findings to Dr Gareth Evans, a consultant in medical genetics at the Christie Hospital in Manchester. He could not tell her for certain whether she had inherited the gene responsible for breast and ovarian cancer, only that there was a 50:50 chance that she had done so. But if she was a carrier, her risk of developing breast cancer was as high as 90 per cent based on her family history.

With such a stark prognosis, she felt she had few choices open to her. Regular breast checks, mammograms and abdominal scans were not enough to ease the constant worry. Her GP suggested that she take part in a trial for the drug tamoxifen, which may reduce the risk of breast cancer, but when she heard there was no certainty that she would get the drug - some women in the trial take a placebo - she dismissed the idea. In April last year, aged 38, she had her healthy breasts removed and three months later underwent a full hysterectomy. 'Surgery was a drastic solution, but not as drastic as dying,' she said.

Wendy Watson is one of a handful of women in Britain who have opted for this radical solution after discovering their lethal genetic legacy. These women know that scientists are within months of finding the gene implicated in inherited forms of breast and ovarian cancer. Once that gene is found, a test to confirm its presence or absence will follow. A woman who does not carry the gene will be at no greater risk of breast and ovarian cancer than the rest of the female population - but women like Mrs Watson, who felt they could not afford to wait, have 'pre-empted the genetics'.

Most of the important gene discoveries to date have centred on rare inherited disorders for which there is no cure. Doctors and geneticists can offer little more than counselling and pre-natal diagnostic tests for those at risk, to tell them whether they have inherited or passed on the particular gene.

Despite the great advances in genetic knowledge over the last 10 years, few people have yet been forced to make difficult decisions about possibly life-saving treatment to protect against an inherited condition. But with the discovery of a gene test for women from high-risk families, facing such decisions would become a reality for hundreds of women.

Every year, there are 1,500 new cases of familial breast cancer, about 5 per cent of the total number. The dilemma for these women was first highlighted in the Independent in December 1992. Three sisters from Aberdeen were among the first to have disease- free breasts and ovaries removed because of an inherited risk of cancer. They, not surgeons, had suggested the surgery, and in the majority of cases so far this has proved to be the case. Doctors seem remarkably reluctant to raise the idea of preventive surgery with their patients. They fear it is unacceptable to most women, too mutilating and would lead to great psychological distress.

Dr Gwen Turner, of the family genetics clinic at St James' University Hospital, Leeds, says the idea of 'wholesale mastectomies' is 'an appalling proposition'. But Dr Evans disagrees - he says that for certain women it will be the right choice and they have a right to be aware of the option.

Wendy Watson has no doubt that surgery was the right solution for her, relieving her from a tremendous burden of fear. She said: 'I'd seen my mum die and there were all these relatives with breast cancer. I knew I could deal with the operation and with not having breasts, and I want other women to know that it is OK to have this done. It will save your life. It has certainly not altered mine one bit, except to enhance it.'

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
election 2015The 10 best quotes of the campaign
News
A caravan being used as a polling station in Ford near Salisbury, during the 2010 election
election 2015The Independent's guide to get you through polling day
News
people
Voices
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month
voicesWhat I learnt from my years in government, by the former Home Secretary David Blunkett
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'